The Emperor Anastasius died in 518 A.D. at the ripe age of eighty-eight, and his sceptre passed to Justinus, the commander of his body-guard, whom Senate and army alike hailed as most worthy to succeed the good old man. The late emperor had nephews, but he had never designated them as his heirs, and they retired into private life at his death. Justinus was well advanced in years, as all his three
predecessors had been w hen they mounted the throne. But unlike Leo, Zeno, and Anastasius, he had won his way to the front in the army, not in the civil service. He had risen from the ranks, was a rough uncultured soldier, and is said to have been hardly able to sign his own name. His reign of nine years would have been of little note in history—for he made no wars and spent no treasure—if he had not been the means of placing on the throne of the East the greatest ruler since the death of Constantine.
Justinus had no children himself, but had adopted as his heir his nephew Justinian, son of his deceased brother Sabatius. This young man, born after his father and uncle had won their way to high places in the army, was no uncultured peasant as they had been, but had been reared, as the heir of a wealthy house, in all the learning of the day. He showed from the first a keen intelligence, and applied himself with zeal to almost every department of civil life. Law, finance, administrative economy, theology, music, architecture, fortification, all were dear to him. The only thing in which he seems to have taken little personal interest was military matters. His uncle trusted everything to him, and finally made him his colleague on the throne.
Justinian was a hard and suspicious master, and not over grateful to subjects who served him well; he was intolerant in religious, and unscrupulous in political matters. When his heart was set on a project he was utterly unmindful of the slaughter and ruin which it might bring upon his people. In the extent of his conquests and the magnificence of his public works, he was incomparably the greatest of the emperors who reigned at Constantinople. But the greatness was purely personal: he left the empire weaker in resources, if broader in provinces, than he found it.
Justinian did a great legal work — the compilation of the Pandects and Institutes. His private life was strict even to austerity. All night long, we read, he sat alone over his State papers in his cabinet, or paced the dark halls in deep thought. His sleepless vigilance so struck his subjects that the strangest legends became current even in his life-time.
The empire when Justinian took it over from the hands of his uncle was in a more prosperous condition than it had known since the death of Constantine. Since the Ostrogoths had moved out of the Balkan Peninsula in 487 A.D., it had not suffered from any very long or destructive invasion from without. The Slavonic tribes, now heard of for the first time, and the Bulgarians had made raids across the Danube, but they had not yet shown any signs of settling down—as the Goths had done—within the limits of the empire. Their incursions, though vexatious, were not dangerous. Still the European provinces of the empire were in worse condition than the Asiatic, and were far from having recovered the effects of the ravages of Fritigern and Alaric, Attila, and Theodoric. But the more fortunate Asiatic lands had hardly seen a foreign enemy for centuries. Except in the immediate neighbourhood of the Persian frontier there was no danger, and Persian wars had been infrequent of late. Southern Asia Minor had once or twice suffered from internal risings, but civil war left no such permanent mark on the land as did barbarian invasions. On the whole, the resources of the provinces beyond the Bosphorus were intact.
There were more than 300,000 lbs. of gold in store when Justinian came to the throne. The army was in good order, and composed in a larger proportion of born subjects of the empire than it had been at any time since the battle of Adrianople. There would appear to have been from 150,000 to 200,000 men under arms, but the extent of the frontiers of the empire were so great that Justinian never sent out a single army of more than 30,000 strong, and forces of only a third of that number are often found entrusted with such mighty enterprises as the invasion of Africa or the defence of the Armenian border. The flower of the Roman army was no longer its infantry, but its mailed horsemen (Cataphracti), armed with lance and bow, as the Parthian cavalry had once been of old. The infantry comprised more archers and javelin-men than heavy troops: the Isaurians and other provincials of the mountainous parts of Asia Minor were reckoned the best of them. Among both horse and foot large bodies of foreign auxiliaries were still found: the Huns and Arabs supplied light cavalry, the German Herules and Gepidae from beyond the Danube heavier troops.
The weakest point in the empire when Justinian took it over was its financial system. The cardinal maxim of political economy, that “taxes should be raised in the manner least oppressive to those who pay them” was as yet undreamt of. The exaction of arbitrary customs dues, and the frequent grant of monopolies was noxious to trade. The deplorable system of tax-farming through middlemen was employed in many branches of the revenue. Landed proprietors, small and great, were still mercilessly overtaxed, in consideration of their exemption from military service. The budget was always handicapped by the necessity for providing free corn for the populace of Constantinople. Yet in spite of all these drawbacks Justinian enjoyed an enormous and steady revenue. His finance minister, John of Cappadocia, was such an ingenious extortioner that the treasury was never empty in the hardest stress of war and famine: but it was kept full at the expense of the future. The grinding taxation of Justinian’s reign bore fruit in the permanent impoverishment of the provinces: his successors were never able to raise such a revenue again.
Justinian had determined to take up a task which none of his predecessors since the division of the Empire under Arcadius and Honorius had dared to contemplate. It was his dream to re-unite under his sceptre the German kingdoms in the Western Mediterranean which had been formed out of the broken fragments of the realm of Honorius; and to end the solemn pretence by which he was nominally acknowledged as Emperor West of the Adriatic, while really all power was in the hands of the German rulers who posed as his vicegerents. He aimed at reconquering Italy, Africa, and Spain—if not the further provinces of the old empire.
All through the fifth century, the “Blues” and “Greens”, the great factions of the Byzantine Circus, had been growing stronger, and interfered more and more in politics, and even in religious controversies. From mere Circus factions they had almost grown into political parties; but they still retained at the bottom many traces of their low sporting origin. The rougher elements predominated in them; they were prone to riot and mischief, and, as the events of 532 were to show, they were a serious danger to the State.
In January of that year there was serious rioting in the streets. Justinian, though ordinarily he favoured the Blue faction, impartially ordered the leaders of the rioters on both sides to be put to death. Seven were selected for execution, and four of them were duly beheaded in the presence of a great and angry mob, in front of the monastery of St. Conon. The last three rioters were to be hung, but the hangman so bungled his task that two of the criminals, one a Blue the other a Green, fell to the ground alive. The guards seized them and they were again suspended; but once more—owing no doubt to the terror of the executioners at the menaces of the mob—the rope slipped. Then the multitude broke loose, the guards were swept away, and the half-hung criminals were thrust into sanctuary at the adjacent monastery.
This exciting incident proved the commencement of six days of desperate rioting. The Blues and Greens united, and taking as their watchword, Nika, “conquer”, swept through the city, crying for the deposition of John of Cappadocia, the unpopular finance minister, and of Eudemius, Praefect of the city, who was immediately responsible for the executions. The ordinary police of the capital were quite unable to master them, and Justinian was weak enough to promise to dismiss the officials. But the mob was now quite out of hand, and refused to disperse: the trouble was fomented by the partisans of the house of the late emperor, who began to shout for the deposition of Justinian, and wished to make Hypatius, nephew of Anastasius, Caesar in his stead. The city was almost empty of troops, owing to the garrison having been sent to the Persian War*. The Emperor could only count on 4,000 men of the Imperial Guard, a few German auxiliaries, and a regiment councils in the Palace. John of Cappadocia and many other ministers strove to persuade the Emperor to fly by sea, and gather additional troops at Heraclea.
There was nothing left in his power save the palace, and they insisted that if he remained there longer he would be surrounded by the rebels and cut off from escape. It was then that the Empress Theodora** rose to the level of the occasion, refused to fly, and urged her husband to make one final assault on the enemy.
Her words are preserved by Procopius:
“This is no occasion to keep to the old rule that a woman must not speak in the council. Those who are most concerned have most right to dictate the course of action. Now every man must die once, and for a king death is better than dethronement and exile. May I never see the day when my purple robe is stripped from me, and when I am no more called Lady and Mistress! If you wish, O Emperor, to save your life, nothing is easier: there are your ships and the sea. But I agree with the old saying that ‘Empire is the best winding-sheet.’ ”
Spurred on by his wife’s bold words, Justinian ordered a last assault on the rebels, and Belisarius led out his full force. The factions were now in the Hippodrome, saluting their newly-crowned leader with shouts of “Hypatie Auguste, tu vincas”, preparatory to a final attack on the palace. Belisarius attacked at once all three gates of the Hippodrome: that directed against the door of the Kathisma failed, but the soldiery forced both the side entrances, and after a hard struggle the rebels were entirely routed. Crowded into the enormous building with only five exits, they fell in thousands by the swords of the victorious Imperialists. It is said that 35,000 men were slain in the six days of this great “Sedition of Nika”.
It is curious to learn that not even this awful slaughter succeeded in crushing the factions. We hear of the Blues and Greens still rioting on various occasions during the next fifty years. But they never came again so near to changing the course of history as in the famous rising of 532 A.D.
*[The causes of quarrel were ultimately the rival pretensions of the Roman and Persian Empires to the suzerainty of the small states on their northern frontiers near the Black Sea, the kingdoms of Lazica and Iberia, and more proximately the strengthening of the fortresses on the Mesopotamian border by Justinian. His fortification of Dara, close to the Persian frontier town of Nisibis, was the casus belli chosen by Kobad, who declared war in 528, a year after Justinian’s accession.
The Persian war was bloody, but absolutely indecisive. All the attacks of the enemy were repelled, and one great pitched battle won over him at Dara in 530. But neither party succeeded in taking a single fortress of importance from the other; and when, on the death of Kobad, his son Chosroes made peace with the empire, the terms amounted to the restoration of the old frontier. The only importance of the war was that it enabled Justinian to test his army, and showed him that he possessed an officer of firs-trate merit in Belisarius, the victor of the battle of Dara.
This famous general was a native of the Thracian inland; he entered the army very young, and rose rapidly, till at the age of twenty-three he was already Governor of Dara, and at twenty-five Magister militum of the East. His influence at Court was very great, as he had married Antonina, the favourite and confidante of the Empress Theodora]
**[So many stories have gathered around Theodora’s name that it is hard to say how far her early life had been discreditable. Whatever her early life may have been, Theodora was in spirit and intelligence well suited to be the mate of the Emperor of the East. After her marriage no word of scandal was breathed against her life. She rose to the height of her situation: once her courage saved her husband’s throne, and always she was the ablest and the most trusted of his councillors. The grave, studious, and hard-working Emperor never regretted his choice of a consort.
On the whole, her influence would appear not to have been an evil one—historians acknowledge that she was liberal in almsgiving, religious after her own fashion, and that she often interfered to aid the oppressed. It is particularly recorded that, remembering the dangers of her own youth, she was zealous in establishing institutions for the reclaiming of women who had fallen into sin]
(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus